The normalization of American Jewish history.

Author:Hyman, Paula E.
Position:Part One: Reflections Upon American Jewish History

When I was a student some thirty-five years ago in one of the premier Ph.D. programs in Jewish history, at Columbia University, it was clear that American Jewish history fell outside the parameters of the field. True, one could study Jews as part of American history, but the American Jewish experience was in no way integral to the study of Jewish history. For one thing, opting for residence in America meant abandoning Jewish languages; American .Jews had demonstrated loyalty neither to Yiddish nor to Hebrew. For another, Jews in America, it was argued, had produced no great thinkers contributing to the enrichment of what was deemed to be an unbroken tradition of Jewish culture. The American Jewish community was also too new to assert a claim to lasting historical significance. Moreover, its historical scholarship was dominated by filio-pietistic writings that were designed to make American Jews feel good about themselves.

All that has changed, particularly in the past twenty-five years or so. What I am calling the "normalization of American Jewish history" has been shaped by broad historical forces, by developments in the understanding of the Jewish experience, and by the production of a considerable body of first-rate scholarship in the field of American Jewish history.

The recognition of American Jewry as the most powerful Jewish community in the world and a worthy counterpoint to Israeli Jewry undercut the claim that its history carried little weight. After all, beginning at the latest during World War I, American Jewish institutions and individuals were responsible for worldwide Jewish philanthropy and for the design and implementation of Diaspora Jewish political strategy. Moreover, because of the Holocaust and the disruption caused by Soviet communism, there was no Jewish community that could compete with American Jewry in terms of the chronological span and continuity of its history.

The emergence of American Jewish history as a recognized subfield of modern Jewish history also coincided with the broadening of Jewish historical scholarship, and of historical scholarship more generally, with the flourishing of social and cultural history. Scholars in modern Jewish history increasingly focused not only on texts or other intellectual products but also on the processes of modernization, and the involvement of Jewish institutions as well as individuals in those processes. "Emancipation and assimilation" became the central trope of modern Jewish history. American Jews had acquired political rights with comparative ease and had never been totally non-emancipated, but the paradigm of "emancipation and assimilation" worked in the American as well as the European context. Indeed, the American experience contributed to a recent trend to interrogate the meanings attached to the two terms of the paradigm and to contextualize them, as well. (1)

The American Jewish experience also offered an opportunity for comparative historical investigation of many important aspects of Jewish modernity. First among them are migration and its impact. America was not unique in building its Jewish community through immigration, but immigration was recognized as central to American Jewish history well before it featured in the historiography of other Jewish communities. Moreover, the scale and chronological sweep of Jewish migration to the United States provided scholars with a rich documentation that has facilitated comparison, both with other immigrant groups in the U.S. and with Jewish migrants elsewhere. The historiography of American Jewish immigrants raised questions that historians have applied in other contexts, including the Yishuv and Palestine. They include the economic and cultural adaptation of immigrants to their new surroundings, the relationship between culture of origin and the construction of new identities and institutions, and intra-communal ,Jewish conflicts and cooperation. The...

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